“Everyone came up to me after and they would talk about how much I was smiling on the 18th fairway,” Carlisle’s Riley Hamilton said of her Monday at Meadowbrook Country Club in Richmond.
Hamilton had a good reason to smile. Heading into the final hole of Monday’s VISAA DII state championship, she had a four stroke lead in the individual tournament, and was a virtual lock for her first state title on the final Par 3 hole.
The sophomore, who shot a 73, said winning a state championship had been her dream since she started playing golf for the Chiefs two seasons ago as an eighth grader, so realizing she had likely done that in the middle of her round was emotional.
“It was just because I already felt like a weight lifted off of my shoulders, like I had already accomplished something,” she said by phone earlier this week. “But then I had to get my head straight and make sure I was focused still because I still had another thing to do.”
That other thing? Helping her team also win a state title.
Hamilton, who was playing in the final group of the day, had already made par on the 17th, despite missing the green, a theme throughout her day. But the par on the penultimate hole helped tie Eastern Mennonite in the team score, meaning it was up to her on the 18th to win it, not just for herself but her teammates as well.
“I didn’t really know that much but my coach was following me and he was just telling me that I needed to keep it up, I was doing good and our team was doing good, so I felt pretty confident there,” she said. “When I got to the 18th hole, I actually did not hit my driver well and I got into some trees and had to punch out and I finally hit it on the green and I had about a 12-foot par putt to make and that was to win states for the team.
“So once I got it on the green my coach came up to me and he was like ‘this putt is pretty important. Speed is the key.’ And he was just talking me though it a little bit but not trying to get in my head. So that part was pretty nerve-wracking because at that point all of the teams were just standing there watching on the 18th green so I knew that that was going to be the tiebreaker there.”
Hamilton said she had to step back from her shot because she started to feel herself get shaky.
But then her killer instinct set in.
“It was just on me. At first I was very nervous. I backed away from it,” she said. “But then once I got to it and did my regular routine I was fine. It was almost like I completely forgot everyone was there and just did my thing like normal.”
Normal was another par, enough to give the Chiefs a one stroke team championship, and give Hamilton an individual title to go along with it.
It wasn’t an easy day for her though in the least. Hamilton said she hit just five greens in the round, and had to rely heavily on her short game. The funny thing is, leading up to the conference tournament she said she hadn’t been putting well at all.
Then, all of a sudden she said something shifted and since the conference tournament two weeks ago “I’ve been putting it like crazy.”
She said she practiced on the green for two hours before the state meet.
“Golf is so inconsistent and one day you could be hitting it well, and then the next day you could be putting it well and not hitting it as well,” she said. “I think I really practiced it right before… and I think that really helps just getting my strokes smooth and not really thinking about it too much.”
Hamilton finished tied for ninth at states a year ago, but said she’s seen all aspects of her game get a lot stronger in the year since, as have the rest of the Chiefs, who were sixth as a team in VISAA last year.
One of the biggest differences for Hamilton is gained confidence in her game. She said two weeks ago she was playing in another tournament outside of school and won by one stroke.
How did she win? By making a long putt on the last hole, almost just as long as the one Monday.
She said in that tournament too it was just as much pressure.
“So I guess I was just kind of used to it to not think about it,” she said. “Because when you think about it that’s when things can go wrong.
“You really just have to have confidence in your short game and just know that you’ve got to get up and down for par. It was just kind of like I’d just pick my spot, hit it right there and I’d leave myself five feet or closer to hit my par putt. I didn’t think about it too much because usually when I start thinking about how hard I need to hit it or all of this it just kind of takes over and it can really mess you up because golf is all mental. So I just had to really trust myself.”
Nerves were apparent in the beginning, not just for Hamilton but the entire team. She said the biggest thing was excitement knowing this would be the last tournament with seniors Aleigha Hodges, Jacob McDaniel and Nic Brunner.
There was also history on the line. The team championship was the fourth for the Chiefs in the last 10 years. Hamilton said she’s started to think more and more about being part of a Carlisle program that is so storied in the state.
“I think I’m getting to the point where I’m realizing that it is a big deal and it’s pretty cool that I am a part of something that big,” she said. “I just look back at when I was little looking up to the older people and the older guys that had won a state championship… and just looking back and thinking that people who are coming in, they can look up to our team and just think ‘well I hope one day we can win it again’ and just strive for that so Carlisle can keep winning.”
The hugeness of the win hasn’t fully set in for Hamilton, and she said it’ll probably take about a week for the initial shock to wear off.
After that, it’s back to the course, not just to get ready to defend her title. Because now she has two titles to help defend, and a young Carlisle team behind her.
“That would be pretty cool to win again,” she said. “But just trying to help the team improve because we are losing some people… so helping the eighth graders and incoming freshmen improve and get better at their game so that for years to come we can have more mentors leading up. We can have a good team for the rest of the years.
“It feels really good. It feels like I accomplished something.”